When Luciano Spalletti used it, it made Roma one of the most talked about teams in Europe. When Scotland manager Craig Levein used it, he was roundly castigated for even trying it. And when Spain used it in Euro 2012, it caught pundits, fans and the opposition alike off-guard. The 4-6-0 formation in itself is not exactly a new formation; Romania was said to have used it against Argentina in USA ’94, but is it a negative or positive system? What do you need to do to employ it successfully? How can it be countered?
Football journalist Jonathan Wilson noted that the Austrian ‘Wunderteam’ in the 1930s and the ‘Magnificent Magyars’, who so memorably crushed England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953, operated with a deep lying forward. They may not have played with a 4-6-0 per se but those teams went against the grain of tactics at the time, which demanded a front man at the top of the pitch. In essence the likes of Matthias Sindelar of Austria and Hungary’s Nándor Hidekuti demonstrated back then the value of dropping off the last man and creating space for themselves and others in their team to exploit. At the same time they denied the opposition a focal point, a man to use as a reference to mark and thus caused confusion. Does a defender step up to mark the man or do they keep their position? Either way the result is that space is created for the attacking side to use.
In the modern game, the lack of an out-and-out front man in a 4-6-0 formation poses a number of dilemmas for the central defenders. Do they defend high or deep? Do they adopt a zonal marking system? Do they follow the man? The choices are complicated by the nuances of the offside rule, phases of play have to be considered and who’s deemed to be interfering with play. The task of defending has become decidedly more difficult as the game and laws evolve and a 4-6-0 deployed well can exploit any uncertainty shown by the opposition.
The key to 4-6-0 though is deploying it well. To make the system work a certain skill set and tactical demands are required of the players, especially the midfielders, and the formation itself has to allow for attacking flexibility.
Craig Levein infamously deployed a 4-6-0 formation against the Czech Republic in a Euro 2012 qualifier when the Scots played in Prague. Leave aside the notion of whether the Czechs were there to be attacked or not, the danger of playing a 4-6-0 as a notionally defensive formation is that the game can be compressed considerably and ball retention can be difficult. Without a striker to occupy the opposition back four or stretch the game the defenders can step up and squeeze the pitch forcing pressure on the defensive team.
With possession, in a defensive mindset, the options are limited. By inviting pressure the defence has minimised the opportunity to build from the back or play across the back four. The options are then to a) send it long and surrender possession relatively quickly or b) pass short to a pressurised midfield, that’s been instructed to stay tight, and hope the ball is retained for a longer period of time but also fear losing it in a more dangerous area of the pitch. Arguments about containing the opposition are mute when a goal is surrendered regardless of when it’s conceded. When the opposition realise that the 4-6-0 formation is being used for a purely defensive purpose it invites them to pour forward. From then on it requires a huge defensive effort to protect the goal and whilst there may be the odd goal threat at the other end the invitation of pressure makes it a dangerous game to play.
It also helps when you have the right kind of players to fit the system. In all fairness Darren Fletcher, James Morrison and Graham Dorrans are no Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Xavi Alonso. And that comes to the other point, an easy one to say, but the formation requires the players to fit the system and who can keep and use the ball well.
At Euro 2012, in their 1-1 draw against Italy, Spain boasted a midfield of Iniesta, Xavi, Xavi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, David Silva and Cesc Fàbregas. According to ProZone the Spaniards made 780 passes completing 88% of those compared with Italy’s 476 at a 76% completion rate.
Whilst the Spaniard’s didn’t solely rely on 4-6-0, it gave them a tactical option, which allowed them to surprise teams. Laurent Blanc expected Spain to line-up with Fernando Torres and prepared his team to sit deep but was caught out when Del Bosque opted to start with Fàbregas instead.
In the end Torres did end up as Spain’s top scorer with three goals but the Spaniards had Fàbregas, Xavi Alonso and David Silva netting twice in the tournament whilst Juan Mata, Jesús Navas and Jordi Alba (who scored a stunning goal in the final) contributed to the Spanish goal rush.
Spain had the players in that tournament to pull-off a 4-6-0. The midfielders were not just capable of keeping possession but able to provide options off the ball, anticipate potential passes, run the angles, swap positions, press quickly to win back possession and pull opponents away from their roles. It is extremely difficult to execute and requires technique, discipline, quick ball movement, player movement and tactical nous but employing this formation successfully allowed them another tool to tire the opposition and outnumber them in key areas of the pitch.
But the Spanish are just one of a number of sides who’ve experimented or adopted 4-6-0. Under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona gradually moved away from using a main striker. Samuel Eto’o was transferred to Inter though he was a prolific goal scorer for Barça, Zlatan Ibrahimovic who came from Inter didn’t slot in and Thierry Henry was generally used on the left. Henrik Larsson managed to integrate himself into Barcelona’s system but that was only after studying their style during an injury layoff. Indeed, it can be argued, Barcelona didn’t play with a recognised front man when they tore Manchester United apart in the Champions League Final at Wembley and have persisted in not using one.
United was also credited in playing a nominally striker-less formation in the 2007/2008 season asking Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez to interchange positions, drop deep and create space for each other.
Luciano Spalletti adopted the 4-6-0 as an attacking/counterattacking formation during his time at Roma though an injury situation forced his hand. Playing with Francesco Totti as a the furthest man forward in a deep-lying striker position, Roma effectively nullified the opposition’s back four by not giving them a man to mark. In the midfield Roma had two men extra to keep possession of the ball and over-run their opponents. With the system Roma won 11 consecutive Serie A matches in the 2005/2006 season and the following season Francesco Totti won the European Golden Boot scoring 26 goals. The formation played no small part in helping Totti reach that accolade and with Spalletti in charge Roma won the Coppa Italia twice and the Supercoppa Italia once. That said when Roma visited Old Trafford they were caught cold and lost 7-1 to Manchester United. A freak result perhaps, it’s not every day Michael Carrick scores two screamers, and the fault can’t be laid squarely at the feet of 4-6-0 but United did expose its flaws that evening especially when Roma threw bodies forward.
For all the simplicity of football itself, the game itself has evolved into a far more complex beast. 4-6-0 is not an easy formation to employ and only a number of teams in club and international football, debatably, have the personnel use it successfully.
Also just because it exists doesn’t mean that the role of a frontline striker is automatically obsolete, indeed if Spalletti had a full squad to choose from he may not have used 4-6-0 at all. Though 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 appear to be the formations of choice at the moment what the 4-6-0 does show is if used effectively it can pose questions and confuse opponents and defenders but on the caveat that the right players are integrated into the system and that’s by no means an easy feat. Will it become the formation of the future? The thing is a good frontline striker is a valuable commodity and will always be in demand. The 4-6-0 has made its mark in the game no doubt but whether it’s here to stay long term or is the next step in football’s evolution remains to be seen.